At one of our recent Inspiring Women in Business conferences, a senior businesswoman spoke about the importance of embracing gender differences and the unique contributions that men and women bring to the workplace.
It got me thinking. I couldn’t have said that. Rightly or wrongly, as a man I’d fear being pilloried for generalising, or worse, stereotyping. After all, sweeping statements about the differences between the sexes were characteristic of the bad old days of unashamed patriarchy: there’s arguably only a thin line between ‘women leaders are more likely to seek consensus’ and ‘women are too emotional to make tough decisions’.
In any sensible debate, of course, you should be able to voice a reasoned opinion regardless of your background or proximity to the issue, so long as you recognise how such things might have shaped your views. But it just goes to show how, with opinions often running high on gender equality, it can feel like treading on eggshells.
Nonetheless, it raises some interesting questions. Should we aim to treat everyone the same, or is equality different from fairness? Is de-gendering the workplace ignoring the differences between men and women, or simply ignoring the problem of bias against women?
We decided to ask around to see what you thought. Predictably, opinions were divided.
Everyone agreed that we ought to recognise people’s individuality and the contributions diverse workforces can make. The commitment to fairness was also, thankfully, universal. (Would you want to work in a self-consciously unfair business?)
On whether men and women add something different, though, there was less consensus. ‘Women bring unique talents to an organisation, increase collective intelligence through social scanning, equalising the share of voice in meetings and they have a natural tendency for collaboration. But for them to achieve their greatest potential, they need to learn talents that men have, like assertive negotiation, succinct communication, and taking credit for their own work - and apply them,’ said Nikki Watkins, CEO of Tyche Leadership Consulting.
Fiona Czerniawska, founder of Source Global Research, also agreed that there were differences, just not the same ones. ‘Of course we’ve got to be careful with generalisations, but if anything women are quicker to take decisions and the initiative... I also think women function better in flatter organisations, where men prefer a clear hierarchy.’
Others felt this view risked descending into stereotypes.
‘It’s too generalising to think that each sex has different attributes and a specific contributions to make. Not all women have excellent interpersonal skills, nor are all men assertive. Instead, it’s about treating people as individuals,’ argues Cathy Hayward, MD of Magenta Associates.
‘We have to get away from a binary understanding of gender in which certain qualities, attributes or needs can be seen as female or male,’ adds Francesca Wilding, founder of gender equality trainer Turn of Phrase. ‘Gender difference shouldn’t be ignored of course, but assuming sameness means ignoring our unconscious bias, which can often result in us behaving in a more discriminatory way.’
The key question is how your attitude to gender differences affects how fairly you treat employees, knowingly or unknowingly. How does it affect pay, promotions, recruitment and culture? Recognising differences risks reinforcing unconscious bias, but on the other hand pretending there are no differences at all risks failing to address the biases that already exist.
Clearly this is an issue that needs to be addressed. It is a commercial imperative as well as a moral one to treat people fairly; discrimination only cuts you off from talent and the best effort of your existing workforce.
How to address it is not an easy question. My own take – fear of broken egg shells notwithstanding – is that, whether we choose to emphasise categorical differences or not, we need to make a conscious, constant effort to challenge our own assumptions and biases, and where necessary those of our colleagues. Above all, that requires an open mind.
Management Today’s Inspiring Women in Business conference Edinburgh takes place on March 9 – book your tickets while you still can.
Here are some more of the views you expressed to us. What do you think?
‘We learn, work and play in a world moulded by centuries of patriarchy and founded on gender differences. Ignoring this and attempting to turn the workplace into a neutral bubble is naïve, counterproductive and old-fashioned. Differences – not stereotypes – are there to be encouraged and supported, or else businesses will drown in a sea of sameness’ – Giovanna Ramazzina, head of leadership and professional development, international, Kaplan
‘How about we stop categorising people into groups and actually treat them as individuals? We’re capable of treating our friends and family this way yet, in a work environment, so many seem to find it a struggle. Crazy.’ – Tina Judic, chief executive of digital performance, Found.
‘I believe in de-gendering the recruitment process but re-gendering afterwards. Make people aware of their unconscious bias. Many won’t recognise it until it is pointed out. A senior (well meaning) man once remarked how sorry he felt for me as I must carry such maternal guilt – he too has children but clearly felt none as his wife was at home. He looked a little shocked when I told him that I felt no guilt, as I was teaching my children a good work ethic.’ – Vicky Bullen, CEO of Coley Porter Bell
‘We should ignore gender differences when we are on a fair playing field and embrace them until that day arrives. A woman can lead a company and work as hard as a man can, although women can do it balancing on heels!’ – Jyoti Patel, founder of Red Rickshaw
‘There can be no denying that traditional masculine and feminine qualities are greatly needed in the workplace, but they don’t have to come specifically from men or women. Gender is a fluid concept, and people – especially younger generations – increasingly think that defined gender roles are irrelevant.’ – Jo Allison, editor at Canvas8
‘There are differences between men and women, that’s a fact. But none of those differences have the least impact on either’s ability to make decisions, to complete tasks, to run effective teams, or in any other way to be a high contributing member of the workplace. In both sexes some people are fantastic at their jobs and some people less so. Difference should always be celebrated; but difference does not excuse discrimination.’ – Jane Asscher, CEO and founding partner of 23red